Santuario de Las Lajas, Colombia.
Before kissing Colombia goodbye I had to make my pilgrimage to Las Lajas, just 10 miles northeast of Ipiales. Without a guidebook or any prior knowledge of anything but the primary tourist jaunts or major cities, Las Lajas was a mystery to me. But nearly each Colombians who I discussed my travels with strongly urged a visit to Las Lajas. So on a leap of faith I motored out of Ipiales this morning and took the scenic ride through pastures and farms along a river and to a steep and narrow gorge where from nearly a mile away as I rode along the side of this hill I could see an incredible church seemingly sandwiched between the walls of the gorge.
As I rode into the village I saw my first Llamas. The town was nothing more than two cobblestone roads. One chained and blocked and the other with a couple food stalls and a souvenir stand. I knew the Church had to be close, but now down closer to the gorge I couldn’t see it. I stopped at the road with the chain across it and just looked around. Dozens of pedestrians walked up and down and I could see more souvenir stands lining the road. Then a truck pulls up behind me. And in seconds the chain comes down and I”m waved through.
I slowly weave my way through increasing density of pedestrians until a half mile or less down the road I come to the cathedral. It’s ominous Gothic steeples stretched out in front of me, the bulk of the church below. I want to walk down the steps to peer inside this church. But as I look around, I’m sure it’s not safe for I would be out of view of my bike for several minutes. Looking around and then over my shoulder to the Northeast of the church I see a huge waterfall tumbling down to the river below. The driver of the truck who snuck up behind me catches me in the conversation I’m so accustomed. He’s delivering flowers to the church, but agrees to watch my bike and things if I go real fast. I blaze down the steps and go on a five minute photo snapping frenzy.
it’s Santuario de Las Lajas. a Gothic church built between 1926 and 1944 on a bridge spanning this gorge. According to legend the church was built here to commemorate the appearance of the Virgin whose image appeared on a huge rock 150 feet above the river. And the church is designed in such a way that its sitting up against the wall of the gorge with rock and the “image” forming its main altar. Colombians make pilgrimage here year round and many leave thanksgiving plaques along the stairwell and alley leading to the church — I’m amazed at the number of miracles pilgrims have seen come true.
Crossing The Border To Ecuador.
At the border I’m faced with the longest line and wait for immigration so far. It’s Saturday and the second Saturday border crossing for me. The customs portion in both Colombia and Ecuador is amazingly efficient and fast. But getting existing and entering burns more than an hour, but still giving me sufficient time to be in Quito by nightfall. The road from Ipiales to Quito runs through mountains and arid highlands. While I’m told the bustling market in Otalvo is a spectacular Saturday excursion, I’m anxious to get to Quito and blow through.
Quito is busy and heavy with traffic through the steep stoned streets of old town. There’s a huge Christmas festival and it takes me 15 minutes to get through intersections. Navigating the tight streets where cards and busses try to squeeze two lanes out of one, I’m frustrated after spending an hour and getting no where. But old town is where I want to be. I stop at a 5-star hotel where the receptionist spends 15 minutes calling hotels in the area — many are booked for the celebration — but succeeds in finding me one only 6 blocks away. But the one way streets, lack of signage and traffic contribute to another 40 minutes of frustration. When I finally find the hotel the receptionist tells me that there is parking but we’ll have to wait for her shift to change so that the guy coming on can help me carry my motorcycle down stairs to the laundry room.
“What?!” Carry this motorcycle. I looked at the stairs. 10 narrow steps drop to a small landing and another 10 steps to below. And that’s after getting the motorcycle into the narrow lobby up over a curb and then up a couple stairs. The hundred plus year-old hotel just isn’t set up for motorcycle travelers. I’m already holding traffic up on the narrow street, but someone holds up traffic while I go the wrong way up the street to make a running start to hop the curb, climb the stairs and ride into the lobby. I was most worried about the glass doors. If I lost my balance on the narrow steps going into the lobby the bike would fall into the 15 foot tall glass doors.
I made it. And convinced the owner of the hotel that trying to move the motorcycle anywhere else wouldn’t be easy nor a good idea. She agreed and assured me that it would be secure and watched 24/7.
Welcome to Quito.